MY JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
PROFESSOR GHULAM AZAM
(Abridged translated version of the author’s original Bangla memoir Jibone Ja Dekhlam)
Translated and Edited by Dr Salman Al-Azami
Copyright – The Ghulam Azam Foundation
The Language Movement
The multilingual Muslims in undivided India during British rule had Urdu as their lingua franca, while Hindi was the lingua franca of the Hindus. These two languages are quite similar in terms of sound and structure. However, there are two clear differences: firstly, Urdu is written in Arabic script although Urdu has more letters than Arabic, while Hindi is written in Devanagri script. The second difference is in vocabulary, with Urdu having many Arabic and Persian words while Hindi is full of Sanskrit words. However, there are quite a few Sanskrit words in Urdu and a significant number of Arabic and Persian words in Hindi. In fact these two languages are not original languages, but lingua francas. In other words, they are combinations of various languages. Bangla also has many Sanskrit words, but due to pronunciation differences it is not always easy to understand Hindi.
Urdu is the mother tongue of many people in the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi. The capital of Urdu is there. The Nizam (ruler) of the Southern Indian state of Hyderabad had declared Urdu as the state language and paved the way for the language to develop by making it the medium of instruction at Osmania University. Most of the Islamic literature published in India since colonisation have been in Urdu, which contributed to a huge collection of Urdu literature. With many books in English translated into Urdu, the language is now considered very rich.
National Language Debate in Pakistan
Pakistan was created with four provinces in the west and one province in the east. The people in these provinces spoke different languages. The main languages of the four western provinces are Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashtu, and Baluchi, although the common language of the educated people in all those provinces is Urdu. Although these four languages have developed significantly since then, they hadn’t developed much literature at that time. Urdu was the medium of education in madrasahs and the scholars practised the language widely. As Urdu was compulsory in schools, modern educated people were able to learn the language. Considering all this, it can be said that Urdu was the most common language of West Pakistan at that time.
However, apart from those who studied in madrasahs, modern educated and common people in East Pakistan knew nothing about Urdu. Making Urdu the only national language would certainly make people in this region, even those who completed university, completely illiterate in different affairs of the state. I found it difficult to understand why those who were in favour of Urdu as the only state language did not realise this matter. They were probably in the wrong illusion that a nation state should have only one state language. That probably led them to declare that Urdu would be the only state language of Pakistan. However, one has to condemn the effort to persist on this despite Tamaddun Majlish starting a movement demanding the declaration of Bangla as one of the state languages of Pakistan.
The movement to declare Bangla as one of the state languages began during the first visit to Dhaka by Pakistan’s Founding Father, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, in March 1948. The Prime Minister of East Pakistan at that time was Khwaja Nazimuddin. Realising the intensity of the movement of 11th March, he decided to come to a compromise with the leaders of the ‘Rashtra Bhasha Shongram Committee’ (Committee for the State Language Movement). An eight-point treaty was agreed between the Prime Minister and the committee on 15th March. The second point of the treaty said: “A proposal comprising the recommendation for making Bangla a state language have to be sent to the central government.”
However, on 21 March Mohammad Ali Jinnah declared at a civic reception at the Racecourse Ground, “Urdu will be the only state language.” I became so agitated that I left the ground immediately with some of my friends. When he made the same announcement at the convocation ceremony at Curzon Hall in Dhaka University on 24 March, the audience shouted “No, No!” When the movement committee met with Jinnah the same evening, he said, “Let us differ respectfully.” He further said, “You can make demands of the government in a systematic manner, but if you try through any other means then you will be dealt with very strictly.”
The huge personality of Mohammad Ali Jinnah was able to temporarily tame the movement for the state language, but the publicity campaign for the demand continued.
Memorandum to the Prime Minister
The Dhaka University Students’ Union organised a huge student rally at the University Gymnasium Ground on 27 November 1948, where students from all educational institutions were invited to attend. The occasion was very important; it was to submit a Memorandum to the then Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawabzada Liaqat Ali Khan, on behalf of students.
As my classes for the MA ended in June 1948, I didn’t go back to stay in the hostel after the summer holidays, instead staying at my uncle Shafiqul Islam’s house in Tikatuli, Dhaka. I had to continue the duties as General Secretary of the Students’ Union although as there was no election for the 1948-49 session. However, due to not staying at the hall, an Acting General Secretary was nominated from the elected representatives.
The responsibility for writing the memorandum to be read to the Prime Minister was given to the then Vice President of Salimullah Muslim Hall, Abdur Rahman Chowdhury, (who later became a renowned justice of the Supreme Court) with a committee approving the draft. The problem arose as to who would read it out at the event in front of the Prime Minister. The natural choice would be the Vice President of the Students’ Union, but as the VP was a Hindu, it was decided that considering the demand for Bangla as a state language was the most important aspect of the memorandum, it wouldn’t be wise to ask Arvind Bose to read the memorandum. The main reason for this decision was that the Muslim League government had already started to confuse the public saying that the demand for Bangla was mainly the demand of the Hindus. Hence, it was decided that Ghulam Azam would read the memorandum as the General Secretary of the Students’ Union.
As students from all educational institutions attended the event, the huge ground was packed with people, including on the adjacent roads as well. The Prime Minister, Nawabzada Liaqat Ali Khan, was seated on the right of the Chair of the programme with his wife Begum Rana Liaqat Ali Khan sat next to him. When I stood to read the memorandum, I noticed that Mrs Khan was just a couple of yards behind the microphone stand. The introduction of the memorandum was to warmly welcome the Prime Minister and to reiterate our commitment to the development of peace and prosperity of Pakistan, to underscore the need to bring unity between East and West Pakistan, and to condemn the narrow mentality of those who only work for regional and provincial interests. The Prime minister became very happy with this introduction and clapped while I kept on reading the memorandum, written in eloquent English, in a loud and clear voice.
When I read the section demanding Bangla be declared a state language, the whole audience gave a huge round of applause supporting the demand. I paused to allow for the clapping to continue.
At that time, I heard the Prime Minister’s wife telling him, “language ke bare me saf saf keh dena (tell them clearly about the language issue).”
I started reading again. This time I repeated the paragraph about the language issue even more firmly. Again the clapping started and some stood up clapping. After the audience became calm, I read out the remainder of the long memorandum and handed it over to the Prime minister on behalf of the students. He shook my hand and accepted it without saying a word.
Then he stood up to give his speech. I was worried that he would reiterate the same words that Mohammad Ali Jinnah had uttered. He began his speech in an angry voice saying, “If this is not regionalism then what is?” He then said in a manner as if to rebuke the audience, “We will not tolerate any regionalism, for the sake of the nation and its unity.”
I became even more worried and wondered how the audience would react if, taking the suggestion of his wife, he used the same language as Jinnah and clearly spoke against the language demand. What would I do if he did that? Would it be possible for me to sit quietly on the stage when the whole audience wanted Bangla to be a state language? I decided that I would instantly protest saying, “No, No” if he said anything against our demand.
As I was getting increasingly tense what the Prime Minister would say, I found him change his tone completely. He talked positively about our other demands; asked students to concentrate on their studies; and asked them to grow up as worthy citizens of the nation. However, he said absolutely nothing about the language issue. He could have said that he was not able to make a decision about this without talking to the Parliament. He probably decided not to say anything against it considering the sentiments among the audience. Despite not being happy with his speech, I had no opportunity to protest as the clever politician managed the situation very deftly.
21 February 1952
The first Prime Minister of Pakistan was assassinated at a public meeting in Rawalpindi on 16 October 1951, and the then Governor, General Khwaja Nazimuddin, became the Prime Minister. Although he was from the Nawab Bari of Dhaka, his mother tongue was Urdu. On 27 January 1951, Khwaja Nazimuddin declared at a public meeting at the Paltan Ground that Urdu will be the only state language of Pakistan. He wouldn’t have made this declaration if he had been as clever as Liaqat Ali Khan. I was astonished at this, as he was the person who had signed a treaty to consider Bangla as a state language when he was the Prime Minister of East Pakistan.
The language movement attained a new momentum after Khwaja Nazimuddin’s announcement. On 21st February, students defied Section 1441 and demonstrated in favour of their demand. The procession started from Dhaka University campus. When it reached the front of Dhaka Medical College Hostel, police fired upon it killing four people and injuring another 17. This killing triggered a mass movement in East Pakistan demanding Bangla to be declared a state language, culminating in the movement’s success the following year.
I was working at Rangpur Carmichael College at that time. Like other parts of East Pakistan, students brought out processions in Rangpur as well. I and my colleague Professor Jamiruddin were among those who led that demonstration. As a result, both of us and some leading students were arrested on 6 March.
First Experience of Jail
The jailor of Rangpur was a friend of Professor Jamiruddin. I and Jamiruddin were flat mates at that time when he came to visit his friend. I had been curious about life in a prison since boyhood, when I used to live in a tutored lodging adjacent to the walls of Dhaka Central Jail in 1939. Prior to my arrest, I asked the jailor if he could take me around the jail, and he said he could do so after getting permission from the authorities. Incidentally, a month later, the same jailor put me and his friend into jail and didn’t have to bother asking permission to show me around.
The Jailor felt very embarrassed, particularly because he couldn’t arrange division2 for us in jail on the first day and we had to sleep on the floor like common criminals resident there. He fast tracked the process the following day and arranged our division swiftly. This was my first experience of jail, and I actually liked it. A prison cell is very effective if one wants to come closer to Allah. When one is away from the family and confined within high walls, then Allah becomes their only resort to get comfort, and He becomes ever closer. No prison wall can stop this. He is the only person to talk to. The taste of pure submission I felt during Tahajjud during those days was unprecedented.
However, I was very sad for one reason. That was the spring time of my married life, as I was newly married just three months earlier on 28 December 1951. We had just began our life together as a family in mid-January, when I brought my wife to my college accommodation. I had to stay in jail for 25 days and it could have been longer if my uncle, Advocate Shafiqul Islam (former leader of Muslim League), had not arranged my release through the then provincial Prime Minister, Nurul Amin.